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A CurtainUp Review
Flags Off-Broadway

Chris Mulkey & Stephen Mendillo in Flags
Chris Mulkey & Stephen Mendillo in Flags (Photo: Philip Johnson)
In the New York premiere of Jane Martin's latest play, Flags, it seems not much has changed since the LA production. The Greek chorus is still pointless and unnecessary, though it is now framed as reporters and TV footage. The core cast members remain; Chris Mulkey as Eddie, Karen Landry as Em, Ryan Johnston as their son Frankie, and Stephen Mendillo as Benny. Their performances are strong and riveting, holding together an otherwise weak production.

Henry Wishcamper's direction focuses more on the geopolitical overtones than on the interpersonal relationships. The video design and frequent set changes distract from what would otherwise be a simple and clear message.

Ultimately, however, this is a play that leaves you with much to think about and question. Why is Eddie so fiercely determined in the face of all opposition? Why is he more concerned with making a point than with strengthening the ties with the family he has left? For that matter, why are his neighbors so fiercely loyal to a scrap of material? One could almost opine that Martin is drawing a parallel between Eddie and George Bush—both adamantly opposed to admitting mistakes or defeat, both willingly or unwillingly alienating everyone around them, both seemingly incapable of making a wise, rational decision.

For a more detailed review, I therefore refer you to Laura Hitchcock's more detailed comments below this box.

Flags by Jane Martin
Directed by Henry Wishcamper
With Chris Mulkey, Karen Landry, Ryan Johnston, Stephen Mendillo, Steven Klein, Ian Beford, Kyle Johnston, Yvans Jourdain and Quonta Beasley
Costume Design: Anne Kenney
Lighting Design: Miriam Nilofa Crowe
Scenic Design: Kelly Hanson
Sound Design: Graham Johnson
Video Design: Aaron Rhyne
Running Time: Ninety minutes, no intermission
59E59, 59 East 59th Street; 212-279-4200
Tuesday through Saturday at 8:30 PM, with Sunday matinees on September 23 and 30 at 3:30 PM
All tickets $18
Through September 30th
Reviewed by Jenny Sandman based on September 15th performance

Jane Martin's new play Flags seems like the terrifying sequel to David Hare's Stuff Happens, which opens at the Mark Taper Forum next week and documents the causes of the Iraq invasion. Flags, a pure act of imagination which rises from today's headlines like poison gas, follows the effect of the invasion on an American family .

Eddie and Em Desmopoulis are looking forward to the return of their soldier son Carter from Iraq. Instead the knock on their door comes from an Army major and a chaplain bearing tragic news. Events reveal Carter died in a demeaning and unnecessary way and Eddie wants an apology from the man at the top. He hangs the American flag upside down which gets lots of media attention and he gets that personal phone call from the man at the top in the White House aiming to pacify.

But Eddie, a garbage man and a hothead, is a screamer in the best of times and genial obfuscation bewilders and infuriates him. He is like a bull facing a matador in his suit of lights. A totally unsympathetic character, he sneers at his unemployed younger son Frankie and ignores the opinions of his wife. He's not a likeable guy, not one the audience can sympathize with or one the neighbors and the public can condone.

He is told flying the flag upside down is a signal of distress but people are frightened by his distress. He's confronted by the father of another boy also killed in Iraq who sees the flag's position as an insult to his son and his country. The friendly grocery clerk spits in his wife's face. The wife is driven into the arms of his best friend Benny. Eddie is left alone with only the support of the remaining son he despises. The screaming neighbors do everything but burn crosses on his lawn, his stubborn refusal to remove the flag becomes a badge of honor and a threat.

Even more terrifying than the predictably tragic ending is the blind fear of the public that clings to a symbol that has become the material from which the Emperor's New Clothes are made.This is more ominous and appalling than the stone ring and Greek chorus with which Martin rings her play. The blank verse they quote attempts to set the play in a classic context but the layer is unnecessary and neither the verse nor the concept really work.

The chorus members play other small parts and are particularly well chosen, most memorably Pamela Shaddock whose beautiful singing voice deserves a role all its own. Chris Mulkey fulfills the playwright's aim of creating an unlikeable bullying Eddie, whose faults become a virtue. As his son Frankie, Ryan Johnston is totally believable, a whiplike flash of fire in a burnt-out landscape. Karen Landry as Em and Stephen Mendillo as Benny deftly flesh out more thinly-written characters.

Director Jenny Sullivan never lets the play wallow in sorrow and sentimentality. She makes a solid structure of anger and every scene is a nail driven into that crucifixion.

Playwright: Jane Martin
Director: Jenny Sullivan
Cast: Chris Mulkey (Eddie), Karen Landry (Em), Ryan Johnston (Frankie), Stephen Mendillo (Benny), Yvans Jourdain, Kara Revel, Fred Shahadi, Pamela Shaddock, Michael Wise (Chorus)
Set Design: Victoria Profitt
Lighting Design: Kathi O'Donohue
Costume Design: Marcy Froehlich
Sound Design: Kurt Thum
Projection Designer: Jeff Kober
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Running Dates: May 21-July 24, 2005
Where: The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, PH: (310) 477-2055
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on May 26.

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